Tiga after television

When the last of the "Survivor" contestants leaves, what happens to the little island the competitive castaways called home?

By Don George

Published June 23, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

As the Darwinian-Freudian struggle that is "Survivor" continues to obsess America -- Who will be the last person left on the island?! -- everyone seems to have forgotten the real million-dollar question: What will happen to the tiny island of Pulau Tiga when the last survivor leaves and its 15 (or so) episodes of fame forlornly end?

Well, I have a master's degree in tourism, and I'm here to tell you.

August 2000: The sole remaining survivor is helicoptered off to Kota Kinabalu into the waiting embrace of her agent. Film crew follows.

September 2000: After screening a grainy video of the final "Survivor" over pad thai in a Khao San Road dive, an attractive and insouciant French couple persuades a young blond American prone to hallucinations to join them in a crazy dream" to reach the island.

October 2000: The threesome make their way by rail, bus, bicycle rickshaw and porpoise back to the island of Sabah. There, in the unmapped coastal village of Kota Kookoo, they pay a wizened fisherman $5 to take them by long-prowed fishing boat across the wind-frothed waves of the South China Sea.

November 2000: In the dingy dives of Khao San Road, a tattered menu is passed from hand to hand. Soon the whine of the long-prowed boat returns to Pulau Tiga, and returns again. Blue-and-yellow tents bloom like bloated jellyfish on the beach.

December 2000: The first full-moon rave party; no one is sure when it ends. The first Tiga "natives" -- a fisherman, his wife, their four children, and assorted chickens and dogs -- arrive from Kota Kookoo and build a palm-thatch shack on the sand with a dug-out pit for a toilet and a tattered sheet for a door. A Kiwi couple pays $3 to sleep there on Christmas Eve.

January 2001: Dozens of backpackers and New Age mystics converge by junk, solar-powered paddleboat and a sleek hydrofoil with the Frenchman at the helm to celebrate the millennium. The American teaches the fisherman how to make banana pancakes. The first chalkboard menu appears: "Today special: Papaya smoothie, Satay of rat, Sea Snake soup." Billiards is introduced.

February 2001: A second Sabah family takes up residence. Their eldest daughter has glossy black hair and limpid sunlit eyes like shallow-water pools; she leaves the Aussie lads slack-jawed. The mother gives a strawberry-skinned, nose-peeling, freckle-shouldered Canadian the first Tiga dreadlocks.

March 2001: The fisherman moves in with the Frenchwoman and opens a four-stool stall, which he christens the Hard Rock Palau.

April 2001: Wired features Tiga in its special report: We Know Where This Is, and You Don't. The American opens the first expat eatery, Hold That Tiga, with Foster's on tap.

May 2001: Trouble erupts when an Aussie who has been on the road for 17 years boasts that he once survived for a week on a bowl of fried weeds he'd bought for six cents in Bukittinggi. A Dutch guy retorts that he once lived for 10 days on a one-cent dish of sautied flies in Sulawesi. The tense scene is defused only when the Frenchwoman walks by, modeling the first Hard Rock Palau tank top.

June 2001: Lonely Planet's Kota Menikalahs correspondent arrives, satellites an e-mail to Melbourne HQ: "Not as pristine as Koh Phoo Phoo, but still worth a visit."

July 2001: Outside, Men's Journal and National Geographic Adventure dispatch correspondents to the island. Instructions: "Get the scoop no one else has." Coincidentally, all stay at the just-opened, award-winning eco-resort, whose rooms are open-air platforms built of native coconut palm and perched on native bamboo stilts, with pandanus leaf mattresses, sun-heated showers and unique overwater bathrooms with spectacular views of the coral reef below.

August 2001: The Pulau Internet Connection -- offering fax, e-mail and phone service, plus plane tickets and scuba tours -- opens.

September 2001: A pan-Asian cafe, the Nasty Goreng, entices customers with Cantonese "Rambo" knockoffs with Tamil subtitles and "The Best of Jacques Cousteau's Home Videos."

October 2001: Condi Nast Traveler features Tiga in its special fashion spread: "Suited for a Shipwreck."

November 2001: After overhearing a conversation in a Kuala Lumpur disco, a Singaporean entrepreneur constructs the dozen-room cinderblock Hotel du Pulau Paradis, with the adjoining Pulau Papaya disco.

December 2001: Sports Illustrated location scouts arrive. The Tiga Spa opens, offering seaweed massage therapy, mangosteen wraps and durian coolers.

January 2002: On an overlooked isthmus, Club Med unveils its newest all-inclusive resort, aimed at the "empty nest" and "nestless" markets, with "gentils organisateurs" leading "gentils membres" in gentils sessions of paratrapezing, tortoise racing and the signature Tiga parties.

February 2002: Amantiga, the island's first five-star luxury resort, opens. Guests arrive by helicopter, stay in air-conditioned thatched cottages with personal butlers and are shuttled by golf cart to restaurants, tennis courts and swimming pools. Beach tours leave main lobby every morning at 10, returning at 10:30, and an innovative irrigation system allows for daily "tropical rains" at 4 p.m., followed by "rainbows" at 4:15.

March 2002: Travel & Leisure features Tiga in its special report: "Get Here Before Your Neighbor Does."

April 2002: Jean-Jacques-Louis du Boeufbourguignon, four-toque chef du moment, is flown in for a special week of Tigan cooking. He falls enamored of the isle and stays to open the first fusion restaurant. Highlights: rack of rat, tempura tortoise and soupgons of sea snake with seapods.

May 2002: The original survivor returns on her honeymoon. When the cooing couple deplanes on the just-built 777 runway, her husband surveys the scene and exclaims, "This place is paradise!" She looks around, scowls and says, "You think this is paradise? You should have been here two years ago!"

Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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